18 November 2009

Condoms for Climate

The climate debate has plenty of signs of complete inanity, but these signs are increasingly coming from groups that should probably know better. Take the case of the UN Population Fund, which is arguing that free condoms can help to slow greenhouse gas emissions:
The battle against global warming could be helped if the world slowed population growth by making free condoms and family planning advice more widely available, the U.N. Population Fund said Wednesday.

The agency did not recommend countries set limits on how many children people should have, but said: "Women with access to reproductive health services ... have lower fertility rates that contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions."

"As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the Earth's capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme and conceivably catastrophic," the report said.

What effect will free condoms have on emissions and, ultimately, on climate change?

The U.N. Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of the effect that population control would have on climate change. "The linkages between population and climate change are in most cases complex and indirect," the report said.

It also said that while there is no doubt that "people cause climate change," the developing world has been responsible for a much smaller share of world's greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.

Still, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the U.N. Population Fund's executive director, told a news conference in London on Wednesday that global warming could be catastrophic for people in poor countries, particularly women.

"We have now reached a point where humanity is approaching the brink of disaster," she said.

In three weeks, a global conference will be held in Copenhagen aimed at reaching a deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required 37 industrial countries to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

The idea that family planning should be justified in terms of reducing emissions is, in my view, utter nonsense. Family planning policies are important in their own right, and to justify them in terms of climate change cheapens both the climate change agenda and the family planning agenda. Fortunately, this perspective is widely shared:

"It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank.

She also questioned earlier efforts by the agency to control the world's population.

In its 1987 report, the U.N. Population Fund warned that once the global population hit 5 billion, the world "could degenerate into disaster." At the time, the agency said "more vigorous attempts to slow undue population growth" were needed in many countries.

According to Boin, "Numerous environmental indicators show that with development and economic growth we are able to preserve more natural habitats. There is no causal relationship between population density and poverty."

In this month's Bulletin, the World Health Organization's journal, two experts also warned about the dangers of linking fertility to climate change.

"Using the need to reduce climate change as a justification for curbing the fertility of individual women at best provokes controversy and at worst provides a mandate to suppress individual freedoms," wrote WHO's Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum and Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan.

The dynamics going here have been well-chronicled by Mike Hulme, who has suggested that much of the debate about climate change is not really about what we can do about climate change, but what climate change can do for us. Helping to sell family planning is probably not among those things.

UPDATE: A reader writes in noting this from The Economist a few weeks ago:
Lastly, a special case: China’s one-child policy, which began nationwide in the early 1970s. China’s population is probably 300m-400m lower now than it would have been without it. The policy (which is one of population control, not birth control) has had dreadful costs, including widespread female infanticide, a lopsided sex ratio and horrors such as mass sterilisation and forced abortions. But in its own terms, it has worked—20m people enter the workforce each year, instead of 40m—and, to the extent that China is polluting less than it would have done, it has benefited the rest of the world.
People can legitimately disagree on whether the benefits of such policies exceed the costs. However,you can put me down on the side of believing (quite strongly) that they do not.


  1. Roger:

    Although there are many sensitive complications, it's perfectly clear that, by any reasonable measure, the rates of AGW and depletion of non-renewable resources, are dependent on population size – and population growth.

    As unpleasant – and as 'inhumane' – it may seem to discuss this problem, it involves variables that can't be neglected in any serious analysis.

    It's might be 'correct' to suggest that the UN approach is a bit simple-minded. However, it's WRONG to suggest that population isn't an important variable!

    Why don't YOU begin this discussion by putting emphasis on the 'right syllable'?

  2. -1-Len

    Yeah, call me "wrong" if you'd like, but I think that population control policies have absolutely no place in the climate debate.

    This is not to say that population is not an important variable -- it most certainly is (and do note that I never said it wasn't) -- but efforts to reduce emissions through population control are wrongheaded. I say this as someone who strongly supports family planning policies, especially empowering women to be in control of their own reproductive planning choices.

    But family planning as a climate policy? Utter nonsense.

  3. How much longer before the so-called "Greens" seek their own version of "The Final Solution"?

  4. For a chuckle, here's a post I did earlier this year:

    Who knew? Vegan condoms are the "best choice for today's eco-sexual"


  5. What effect will free condoms have on emissions ....

    Man, don't leave a straight line like that lying around. Someone will put an eye out.

  6. Those of you convinced that population growth in the south is the main culprit of climate change (as opposed to, for example, consumption patterns in the west) might be interested in reading David Satterthwaite's recent paper in Environment and Urbanization, "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change." It can be found here: http://eau.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/21/2/545 (paper)

    The press release with the key message ("Study shatters myth that population growth is a major driver of climate change") is here: http://bit.ly/183FkX

  7. It proves that every headcase publicity seeking petit bourgeois wants her/his 15 minutes of fame by jumping on the global warming gravy train.

    The reason is that the corporate media will use absolutely everything they can to push their carbon trading agenda.

    I am waiting to learn how global warming will increase the incidence of child pornography, laziness and attacks by werewolves.

  8. I'm too lazy to look at the moment, but someone keeps a list of all the hundreds of terrible things that have been claimed to be caused or exacerbated by global warming (e.g. the peer-reviewed claim that global warming increases suicides). The nutcases went over the edge years ago.

    So it just makes sense to see something like this. If everything bad in the world is due to or made worse by global warming, it only makes sense that a claim to help solve global warming is viewed as the ultimate in rationales.

  9. This particular idea dates all the way back to 1968 and Ehrlich's 'The Population Bomb', which blamed increases in atmospheric CO2 (as well as pretty much everything else wrong with society) on overpopulation. I think it's absolutely toxic to the prospects of policies to reduce CO2 emissions, since it so strongly suggests a hidden agenda, as well as reminding us of the past excesses of the zero population growth movement. (The Ehrlichs and Holdren, remember, seriously suggested putting sterilants in the water supply to involuntarily reduce fertility.) Add this to Britain's proposed 'personal carbon allowance', and you've done a nice job of confirming the suspicions on the right that AGW is a hoax designed to institute totalitarian government control over people's everyday lives.

  10. The Economist:
    "...to the extent that China is polluting less than it would have done, [population control] has benefited the rest of the world." There’s some merit in this view.

    See the award winning pictures from the land of more than one billion - amazing also in the sense that they were published.

  11. In many ways similar to the argument about tropical cyclone damage and climate change. If you think that population growth in India and China have not affected climate change, wait a couple of decades as those two countries complete their industrialization.

  12. Eli @ 11: not quite sure I follow, but there's a clear difference between thinking population is a driver of climate change and thinking that population policies should be supported because they are effective responses to climate change.

  13. Interestingly, lower reproductive levels are also strongly correlated with women's access to Twinkies, hairspray and Sheryl Crow CD's. We should begin widespread distribution immediately to stop climate change.

  14. Why would global warming by particularly catastrophic for women? I get really tired of these deliberate attempts to tug at heart strings. Men would be no less devastated by a catastrophy. They should have singled out children, since they would be most affected. Why can't we just be sympathetic towards PEOPLE, without singling out gender (or some other artificial category)?

  15. Roger: Here's what the Chinese government said about emissions and population in its 2007 "China’s National Climate Change Programme" report:

    "According to the average per capita emissions from the IEA statistics, the averted births [under China's 'family planning' policies] have resulted in an annual reduction of CO2 emissions by about 1.3 billion tons in 2005. It is a significant contribution that China achieved in the fields of controlling world population and mitigating GHG emissions."

    More than a bit unseemly, in my view.

  16. Oliver, the relationship between population growth in China and India and greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations has been weak up to now (ok, up to 2000) because the per capita emissions have been small. As those countries industrialize the response is sure to increase. Esp. for China, this response will surely lag the population growth because the huge change in population occurred in the 1950-2000 period but even in India population growth appears to be slowing down.

    For a graphical representation of population growth for China, India, US and Europe scroll down to the bottom of this post

    WRT tropical cyclones, as oceans warm, basic physics indicates that storm strength will increase. Most of the warming is to come, thus, while the question is in dispute today, it will not be tomorrow.

  17. (1) If you reduce family size, energy use will fall, but less than proportionate, because there economies of scale in energy use.

    (2) If you reduce family size, children will be better educated, be richer as result, and use more energy. This is also less than proportionate.

    While (1) is a static effect only, (2) is both static and dynamic (rich, well-educated parents tend to have rich, well-educated children).

    Smaller families are thus likely to lower emissions in the short run, but higher emissions in the long run (in the absence of other policies).

  18. You are on record endorsing the Kaya Identity as a framework for understanding GHG emissions. One of the terms of the Kaya Identity is population. Your response to the completely logical linkage of lower population growth = less emissions is bizarre.

    You seem to be participating in the emerging trend of climate inactivism -- people who endorse action to reduce GHGs in the abstract but furiously reject all concrete action to make this a reality.